Stepping out of the Dining Hall to scan the barren, rugged road yet again, we heard our cooking staff’s exhortation, “They’ll come. Don’t worry, they’ll come.”
At forty-five minutes past the mealtime,the little benches were still empty. For a month we worked long hours to prepare every detail, but would anyone come? Would fear keep them away because our skin is white?
“Well, let’s go fetch a few of them with the car. Maybe they’ve forgotten the meal’s today.” Who was I kidding; we’d just told them yesterday. If I hadn’t eaten for most of the week, would I forget that a meal was being prepared for me the following day? Not likely.
Our African cook in the passenger seat, we managed to snatch a few of the invited guests from the streets and drove them back to eat. While settling them at their places on the new wooden benches, our day guard called to us.
“Look! There’s the Briketry bunch. They’re coming!” We rushed out to see them rounding the corner. Led by the stern-faced Benoit, age five, the rag-tag pack of three-year-olds from his neighborhood high-stepped right into the Dining Hall. No one uttered a single word to any of us, in spite of our cheerful, welcome greetings. All heads remained bowed, each one silently skittering over to their spot on the benches. Did they even notice that the brightly-colored green and white checkered, plastic tablecloths matched the gingham curtains on the windows? The windows had been installed after punching a hole in the cement warehouse we turned into our Dining Hall.
The courage of the pint-sized legion, marching determinedly through the streets, must have popped the cork in the bottle-neck of fear, because very soon these children were joined by others. Several had swollen bellies, sad faces, and brittle hair tinged with orange tips, indicating serious protein-deficiency malnutrition. Others had sunken cheeks and thin, little limbs. Those who appeared malnourished but not in serious trouble wore such ragged clothing; one little girl quickly slipped onto the bench in only a faded pair of tiny panties.
Three dozen guests stared down at the plates of food set before them; nobody moved, nobody spoke. The staff stood and I addressed the children, “Okay, kids, thanks for coming. Now, we’ll pray, thanking the Lord for the food provided for you today, and then you may eat. You may not eat out of anyone else’s plate. You’ve your own plate; and you may have more, if you’re still hungry. There’s a snack here for you to take in case you get hungry later. There’ll be another meal for you at this time tomorrow.”
Still, following the Amen, nobody moved, and nobody spoke. What control these little ones exhibited! The steaming mound of rice, dripping with spicy, savory reddish-orange sauce and beef chunks, wafted their aromas right into the young, downcast faces.
Finally, the chief cook leaned over the smallest member of the somber assembly and held a ball of saucy rice to the child’s lips. Bingo! In went the ball, followed immediately by the child’s own fast-paced balling of food into her mouth. Watching the joy of the little girl broke the resolve of the rest. Every hand formed the balls, practically inhaling the food. Finished; the whole crowd was out the door in a flash, catching the take-home snack on the run. Never a word spoken by one child.
For children whose intake amounted to small bits of bread torn off some adult’s morsel or a few balls of dry rice, being presented with the above meal, definitely, constituted a banquet for them, “an elaborate, sumptuous repast”*. Young men in their neighborhoods warned the children not to be taken in by the whites, lest they end up in a car crossing the border on their way to slavery. The kids were just too hungry to care.
Over the days that followed this first banquet, we saw the numbers swell until we were serving more than five dozen children. Nevertheless, for the first weeks, the whole bunch ate in complete silence, before bolting out the door. When we added the local spoons to their place-settings, we heard only the rapid clacking of metal against plastic.
For more than five years now, the children have come to the Lord’s banqueting table. Their cheerful chatter and laughter fill the Dining Hall as they continue to learn the genuine truth behind the daily banquet: His banner over them really is love.**
*The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company
**From Song of Solomon 2:4.
Author’s Note: This is a true story.
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